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A Just Buffalo-Niagara Food System

Buffalo-Niagara will have a just, resilient, sustainable, and community-led food system that ensures the health and well-being of all.

Photo of Samina Raja
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

University at Buffalo Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

African Heritage Food Co-op Buffalo Food Equity Network Cornell Cooperative Extension Food for the Spirit Grassroots Gardens of Western New York (GGWNY) HEAL Food Alliance Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) Somali Bantu Community Organization of WNY UB Sustainability Urban Fruits and Veggies Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Buffalo, New York

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Buffalo-Niagara Metropolitan Area

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We have chosen this city-region because of the grit, resilience, and commitment of its residents, and the extraordinary history, opportunity, adaptability, and innovation of the place. The area experienced significant industrial decline post World War II, not unlike many rustbelt regions in the United States.  

Today, the region is witnessing a resurgence that offers competing future possibilities for its residents. The region has the possibility of transitioning to a future that is fair, just, and environmentally sustainable. The food system can play a key role in ushering such a just transition. The region represents a varied urban-rural landscape that offers the potential for creating a connected, local, and sustainable food system. The area is home to the post-industrial city of Buffalo, the city of Niagara Falls, and surrounding suburban towns and villages. The region has the potential to grow food, process, and distribute food for its million plus inhabitants. Despite the challenges in its food system, the infrastructure, relationships, and processes established by community coalitions make our community ready to accelerate toward a more just vision of a food system. A key reason for our choice is because Buffalo-Niagara can serve as a site of  experimentation, learning, and sharing of ideas for cities and regions nationwide, as well as globally. Scholars have written about the ways in which our community-led change by ‘rustbelt radicals’ in this area has led to slow, but steady transformation in the food system. We are also focusing on this site because we are deeply vested and committed to rebuilding the city’s food system in partnership with individuals, and civic and public organizations. Our team members have worked on building food systems in the city-region since 2002, and we are proud of our long-standing partnerships with civic and public organizations in this effort. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Known globally as the home of Niagara Falls, our community's rich historic, ecological, and cultural story remains largely unknown. During the 1800s, the city and region was the route for enslaved individuals who fled the United States to find freedom from slavery in Canada. The region is rich in natural resources with 110 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes of Erie and Ontario and the Niagara River. In the post-world war II era, Buffalo witnessed a dramatic decline in populations and jobs. Currently, the area is home to over a million residents, 13 percent of whom are Black. The area is growing in diversity with 10,000 refugees resettled since 2001. Residents are served by a rich, if fragmented, food system (FS). The FS generates 10.6 percent ($4.16 billion) of the region’s total GDP of 39.2 billion. At the heart of the FS are 2080 farms, which operate on 30% of the region’s land area. Top five vegetable crops grown (by acreage) were soybeans, sweet corn, head cabbage, pumpkins, and potatoes, and top five fruits were apples, grapes, tart cherries, peaches, and pears. A strong food processing comprising 252 food businesses employs over 6,000 people and generates $1.8 billion in annual sales.  Large-scale food processing -such as production of cheerios -to small scale tortilla manufacturing is prevalent (fun fact: the iconic ball jars were manufactured/invented in Buffalo!). Wholesale is fueled by the region’s advantage of being located on the US-Canada border, with interstate and international freight and shipping routes. Food retail offers diverse options, but also faces some challenges. In the region in 2012, 1,984 food retailers employed 31,334 people and sold $6.78 billion in food products. The most common type of food retail businesses are convenience stores (46%), followed by general merchandise stores that also sell food (15%, grocery stores (16.9%), specialty stores (11%), supermarkets or larger grocery stores (3.4%), fruit and vegetable markets (2%), and meat and fish markets (3.9%). Unfortunately, the most common type of stores -convenience stores -do not offer healthful, affordable, or locally procured foods, a challenge we discuss later.  Mimicking national trends, the area is home to a thriving food service sector comprised of cafes, bakeries, and restaurants, including Anchor Bar, the now-globally famous chicken wings, or Buffalo wings! A number of direct farm-to-consumer efforts, often led by community and civic organizations, connect consumers with growers. Finally, following decades of grassroots organizing, we now have a food policy council as well as the Buffalo Food Equity Network (BFEN), a network led by people of color and indigenous people working to transform the food system. Our coalitions are leading and driving change in the food system.


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Though Buffalo-Niagara has made great headway in the last 10 years, multiple challenges remain in our food system. Some are exacerbated by structural conditions such as limited income and poverty. People in the region earn less income than the nation overall. The average annual per capita income in the region is $24,118, which is over $2,500 lower than that of the nation ($26,708). Approximately 14 percent of the population is below the poverty line.  Limited income and poverty impacts people’s ability to purchase good food, even when it is available. People depend on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal, income-based monetary assistance program that helps people obtain a nutritionally adequate diet. Approximately 12 percent (54,359) of Buffalo Niagara households are enrolled in SNAP (in 2014) though more are eligible.  Additional current challenges include that our current ability to produce food can only meet about 13% of our region’s (healthful) food need. Moreover, residents experience geographic disparities in accessing healthy food-retail. In the Buffalo Niagara region, nearly 56,000 households, or 12 percent of all households, lack access to a supermarket because they live beyond the average walking distance for shopping (0.4 miles for our region) and lack a vehicle. These households are concentrated in urban areas, especially the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. Choosing to eat healthfully in these environments costs more than eating easily accessible foods that are less healthy.  

In a recent conversation convened by Food for the Spirit and the UB Food Lab, community leaders noted the following challenges. Where people live (zip codes) will influence their health, especially in regard to diet and nutrition. Historical divides in the region’s neighborhood landscapes perpetuate the disparities such that some communities are forced to navigate a poor, unjust, unsustainable food environment, especially Black and low income communities. Community leaders affirm that people in the region do not have the ability to afford, nor do they have access to healthy fruits and vegetables. Although grassroot efforts have brought the city far community leaders report that systemic change related to food policy, food equity, and sustainability of this region’s food system is necessary to realizing our vision.

Going forward, in 2050, we remain concerned about the viability of food production in our region as land use planning, development, and urbanization moves forward with little regard to food systems. More land is being consumed for building (low density) homes than being protected for the food system. The city and region is increasingly being viewed as a ‘climate refuge’ nationally but there is limited understanding or preparation of how the region’s food system will serve its current population or future climate refugees. Growing economic disparities (and gentrification) are going to exacerbate these challenges. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is to enhance capacity of people to engage in community-led systems and policy change to strengthen the food system. We hope to facilitate such change through greater public engagement, stronger social networks within the food system, and greater (local government) policy support. We believe that people in Buffalo understand the challenges in Buffalo’s food system, as well as the appropriate solutions to strengthen the food system. Some of these solutions can be accelerated through local and regional government policy. However, people have to have the resources, information, networks, opportunity, and capacity to influence policy change. Our city and region is prepared to embark on a process to build the capacity of people to engage in systems and policy change. 

We intend to design and deploy a process for sharing financial resources to strengthen food systems through a participatory budgeting process. We will catalyze (micro) projects and policy initiatives as determined by residents/civic organizations. We intend to use the Food Prize vision process to catalyze people’s engagement in food systems transformation. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Once our community's challenges are addressed, we hope that Buffalo and surrounding region will be a place where people live to their fullest capacity and ability. We hope that our food system will be a lever for positive broader social transformation in the city and region. In such a system, use of fossil fuels will be minimized in the movement of food from farm to plate. The food system becomes a place where high quality and well-paying jobs are generated across all sectors of the food system. Urban and rural areas will be inter-linked through relationships of trust, reciprocity, and mutual benefit facilitated by the food system. Residens and farmers, both urban and rural, will be strongly connected for mutual benefit of both.  

Ultimately, we hope that the Buffalo-Niagara food system will contribute to eliminating, or minimizing, disparities in dietary outcomes and disease, by race and/or by income. The City of Good neighbors will be a place where diversity of people will continue to be celebrated and supported through an equitable, just, and sustainable food system. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is to create a just, sustainable, healthy, culturally relevant, and efficient food system. Our community leaders in a recent conversation noted the following successes in the last decades in the Buffalo-Niagara metropolitan area. 

Individual-level successes

Increased awareness of food environment challenges 

Greater opportunities for education on food systems, gardening, and food justice, through community programs and events

Growing importance of food systems for residents

Individuals are more engaged with the food system than prior years

Increased importance of healthier cooking practices

Community-level successes

Availability of youth programs in urban agriculture (e.g. Growing Green) 

Increased amount of community gardens across the region

Greater sense of trust among residents and organizations

Greater connections and collective efficacy surrounding food systems

Greater cooperation between local farmers and producers

Establishment of the Buffalo Food Equity Network (BFEN)  and BFEN events

Presence of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Farms 

Grant programs that created connections between local organizations

Availability of Food Lab’s research to evaluate community efforts

Farm-to-School programs

New and long-term community organizations (e.g. Somali Bantu Community Organization, Grassroots Gardens WNY, Massachusetts Avenue Project) 

Mobile fresh produce markets that serve the community

Policy/Systems successes

Established food policy council

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) incentives (e.g. double up food bucks)

Improved agricultural policies in New York State

We are prepared to build on these successes through a grassroots-led effort. We have a food system plan for our region that we have begun to implement (we have a long way to go). A fuller implementation and success toward our vision requires that people are driving policy change tied to food systems. Our ideas for change have three broad themes to create a more just and sustainable food system: to improve consumer food access, to strengthen farm viability, and to connect under-served consumers with local growers. Our community has identified multiple ideas focused on policy change, creation of programming support, and development of physical infrastructure through a formal planning process, as well as through community conversations. All of these ideas span the themes of Environment, Diets, Economics, Culture, Technology, and Policy, and are fully detailed in our region's food system assessment and plan at:

In a recent community conversation, additional ideas were updated and affirmed by community leaders. The community leaders include farmers, operators of food cooperatives, community food justice advocates, community organizers, health advocates, and researchers. We note selected ideas here. 

1. The community should be in control of food policy [policy]

2. City of Good Neighbors (the city of Buffalo) should be a leader in healing the soil and healing the land [environment]

3. City of Buffalo accomplishes zero waste goals [environment]

4. The public school district (Buffalo Public Schools) sells healthy local foods grown at its schools [diets]

5. All residents live within 15 minutes walking distance of healthy food variety [diets]

6. University students launch campus grocery store to reduce student food insecurity [diets]

7. Sharing economy feeds everyone in Buffalo, no need for money [diets, economy, environment]

8. Each community has full service grocery stores [diet, economy]

9. Central planning system for food equity guided by the Food Policy Council [policy]

10. All food systems grounded in equity & cultural awareness [culture]

11. The school district becomes 100% Farm to School [diets]

We aspire to have our community coalitions to lead these efforts going forward. The UB Food Lab is committed to playing a backbone function for the community coalition.  

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website


Join the conversation:

Photo of charles hage

Hi Samina,
The duration of your partnerships and projects is impressive. When you have time, could you take a look at my submission and let me know if you've seen anything like it in your work or the work of others? And of course make any other comment you wish.

Photo of charles hage

You write about "... a process for sharing financial resources to strengthen food systems ..."
Can you tell me something about the process that applies throughout NYS? Thanks.